the photograph. Figure 8 (from a
news screen grab) is hardly any better
when it describes the robot “grabbing
and smashing a worker.”
When a company is fighting
media sensationalism as VW now is, it
is hard to bring forth the truth in an
accident. To sell papers or TV news,
media personnel use any method at
hand to grab the public’s attention,
including sensationalism. There are
dangers in the use of robots and
OSHA has identified seven potential
hazards with industrial robots:
• Human Errors: These can be any
number of human-caused problems.
• Control Errors: The software and
associated system faults.
• Unauthorized Access:
Unauthorized/unfamiliar person entry.
• Mechanical Failures: Mechanical
failure of the robot.
• Environmental Sources: Power
surges, loss of communications
• Power Systems: Power loss due to
• Improper Installation: Robot jams,
fails, then injures worker.
Industrial robots have failed and
caused injuries in the workplace in
many other instances. The New York
Times reported in 2014 that robots
had been involved in several
workplace accidents. The Times
referenced many lethal accidents in US
factories involving robots dating to
2001, 2006, and 2011. Authorities
reported 77 robot-related accidents in
2005, according to the British paper,
the Economist. “Over the years,
people have been crushed, hit on the
head, welded, spray-painted, and even
had molten aluminum poured over
them by robots,” the paper stated.
Therefore, I must warn you.
Whenever you are in the presence of
a robot, be wary of them grabbing
you and bashing you to bits. You just
can’t trust ‘em. They’re out to get
us, even the one you lovingly built
yourself. (Or not.)
Robots Fall During
At first, I was a little bit irritated
at how the media seemed to make
fun of the pitfalls of the robot
contestants in the DARPA Robotics
Challenge (DRC) last summer. For
readers who are not familiar with this
competition, the government agency,
DARPA developed a contest where
entrant’s robots reacted to a disaster
scenario: they entered a staged scene,
operated hand tools and valves, and
performed other relevant tasks instead
Most of the teams spent several
million dollars in the development of
their robotic machines. Developing
millions of lines of code interacting
with some of the most advanced
sensors to drive many actuators takes
time and money, and failures often
occur in elaborate machines.
I guess I can understand some
You Tube videos making fun of the
DRC robots falling down like drunks
while each of the cannon’s firing in
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in the
background were timed to the robot’s
mishaps. I was bothered, however, to
see the same type of music on the
What Actually Caused
the Robots to Fall?
I heard that one woman in the
audience (who was watching one of
the MIT Atlas robots exiting from the
Polaris Ranger ATV) saw the robot
trembling while on the step on the
side of the ATV. “Look at the poor
thing,” she exclaimed, “it is
Of course the robot had no fear;
it was standing on a wobbly steel
shelf attached to the ATV to assist the
robots when entering and exiting the
vehicle. Even one degree of flexing
could cause sensors in the feet to
constantly compensate, thus causing
the rapid shaking of the robot’s legs.
The ATV was designed for humans
who had one foot on the ground and
the other sliding into or out of the
vehicle. This particular required task
proved to be one of the most difficult
for the robots. Some had to actually
drive the vehicle while partially outside
the seat area, as they were too ‘big’
to fit inside the ATV (Figure 9).
KAIST HUBO — an early DRC
entrant from Drexel University (shown
in the photo in Figure 10 from the
Wall Street Journal) — is shown sitting
in the ATV with lots of room to spare.
The later (much larger) ATLAS robots
could not fit in the ATV designed for
humans. Was this considered a failure
of the robots or a failure of DARPA to
not supply a larger ATV for the
robots? Well, it was both.
DARPA told the teams that they
were to use the popular Polaris ATVs,
but six of the DARPA-furnished Atlas
robots were already too large to sit
behind the wheel and adequately
steer and control the vehicles.
Designing Robots to
be Failure Proof
Watching some of the You Tube
SERVO 04.2016 63
Figure 8. Is “Robot Kills VW Worker” better?
Figure 9. The IHMC robot drives 'side saddle.'
Figure 10. A KAIST Hubo from Drexel
University fits nicely in the ATV.
Photo by Wall Street Journal.